Why ending Canadian control over First Nations education starts with you and me

As kids prepare to head back to school this week, I’m gathering up my PDFs and stocking up on coffee as I enter into the final year of my PhD. And yet, firmly entrenched as I am within academia, I still find myself asking just what the heck it is I’m doing here.

As it is for many native people, education has always been contested terrain for me. I’ve both loved the process of learning and loathed the many oppressive conditions in which education often takes place. Canadian classrooms were never designed for Indigenous kids to succeed, and although changes continue to be made, statistics tell us that most native youth never make it to graduation. It’s easy to see why: the still-recent legacy of residential schools lives on in Canadian classrooms through curricula that effectively force kids to think and act ‘mainstream’ if they want to succeed. So why be part of this system at all? This is something I continue to ask myself regularly, even as I push forward with this degree.

Your nerdy native author, hard at work

To be sure, education is a hot topic in native communities these days. Currently, the federal government is working with bands to bring reserve schools up to the same standards as other schools in Canada. In January 2012, the federal government promised to fund reserve or First Nations-run schools in BC at rates equal to other schools in the province, starting this month. But that additional $100 million – intended to improve basic literacy and math skills nationally over 3 years – continues to go largely unallocated. Which means the promise has been made, but its impact won’t be felt in classrooms this academic year.

Such dollars are on top of the $1.5 billion already spent by the feds on First Nations education annually. Yet that money is not translating into improved graduation rates: among all native students, fewer than half graduate with a grade 12 diploma. According to a 2010 speech by Canada’s Auditor General, native graduation rates have barely moved, if at all, over the years: in fact, the gap between First Nations graduation rates and those of Canadians at large has only grown. Clearly, efforts thus far to improve education for the majority of native communities have failed miserably.

Although efforts are being made to “indigenize” post-secondary institutions, what remains largely unchanged in mainstream schools are the broader educational systems and ways of conceptualizing “learning” and “success.”  Because the current Indian Act still includes references to residential schools, the federal government has now committed to creating a ‘First Nations Education Act.’ And while it is hoped that the new act would focus on improving schools rather than forcing children to fit into existing educational structures, little has been done so far (No follow-through once again? Surprise, surprise).

So here’s an idea, and an almost-PhD educated one at that. Rather than throw money at the problem, or wait around for the feds to create a new act that only they would get to govern, why don’t we focus on the possibilities for individuals within our kids’ schools to engage in daily acts of decolonization? What about changing the curriculum to integrate ‘de-colonial’ and Indigenous perspectives? Indigenous counselors are already present in many schools, providing important support for native kids and programming that focuses on helping them to succeed.

But what else can teachers, principals and school board staff do to make these changes? Instead of slipping in that lone, isolated section on ‘native issues’ into the existing social studies course, students could learn a lot from how Indigenous peoples pass on knowledge, such as hands-on involvement and working with elders. Changes in teaching methods like these would not only give Indigenous kids a greater possibility of success, and a chance to learn in new environments (such as working on the land or in the community), it might also give non-native kids a greater chance at a more meaningful education.

And, of course, how can kids succeed at school when they’re lacking other quality-of-life essentials? When our kids are going hungry or lacking stable housing, writing that paper for class isn’t necessarily going to be much of a priority. Schools are also violent spaces for those students — native and non-native — who face bullying from their classmates, in the form of homophobia, racism, and the many ways of targeting kids who are just ‘different.’ The day to day realm of education has to be considered alongside other systems shaping the intimate lives of native kids and families.

At the same time, we might consider what jobs are available for people for whom the confines of the education system are just too stifling. If we truly value traditional knowledge – hunting, fishing, plants and medicines, storytelling, our artforms and ceremonies – communities need to commit to supporting individuals with an education that doesn’t just end with a certificate. The strength of our futures lies beyond merely economic solutions to community development.

When I was in high school, I was one of the few native students in my classes who excelled academically. And I was also one of the handful of native students who made it to grade 12. The good grades I got were more due to the support I received at home than the skills I learned in my classes. As a bookworm, I learned to write through my love of reading, and I am thankful that my mom instilled this love of books in me at a young age.

But even with this background, the post-secondary educational environment has presented challenges that have pushed me close to dropping out of school, and it was only due to the encouragement of individual professors that I persevered. Each time, I vowed never to return to academia, because I didn’t want to contribute to these oppressive systems that value only certain kinds of knowledge and certain kinds of students. I have now come to believe that these systems need Indigenous voices and ways of learning in order to change them from within. But operating in educational institutions comes at a great personal cost to those of us who fight our way through the systems that historically excluded us through policy, and continue to exclude us through oppressive practices.

Meanwhile, I have tried, in my own small ways, to support native kids with their challenges in school by helping out as a tutor, editing papers, speaking in classrooms, helping fill out forms (oh so many forms!), and sharing tips on how to make it through to graduation. This may not be offering much, but, to me, it seems more helpful than waiting for the government to do something that in the end will only reinforce their power over our learning.

So as we see all the kids packing up their knapsacks and heading off to school this week, let’s think about how many of them will still be there next June on the last week of school — and, sadly, how many of them won’t be. Apart from appealing for money or big government changes, I think we can do a lot as individuals to support Indigenous children to succeed. But we need to rethink what success might look like — on their terms, in ways that are also meaningful to their communities and family histories.

As for me, I’ll be dividing my days between talking to people and sitting at my computer, as I attempt to bring community knowledge out and on to the pages of my dissertation. Yes, it is once again time to put on that pot of coffee and get to work.

[ Photo: AANDC ]

14 thoughts on “Why ending Canadian control over First Nations education starts with you and me

  1. GREAT piece Sarah. My PhD is on how teachers are prepared to engage with Indigenous content and critical pedagogy! Sounds like we’re thinking the same thoughts. All the best with the rest of your PhD. BTW: I’m on academia.edu if you feel like being connected.

  2. Thanks, Susan. Your work sounds amazing – I would love to read more about it. Do you have any articles available? And thanks for the reminder to get on academia.edu – it’s been on my ‘to do list’ for awhile.

  3. I LOVED this article!! I’m hoping to dedicate my PhD to exploring current efforts to decolonize and Indigenize education, particularly at the elementary and secondary levels. Nisheducator – do you know the title of that book? It sounds interesting.

  4. Very well-put Sarah. I second the notion of redefining success. I’d be curious to know what you think about “Learning to Walk in Beauty”. I just took a class on Cultural Diversity in the Classroom, and Indigenous Education was a main (and fascinating!) topic.

  5. The curriculum of the education system is the curriculum of white/anglo/euro settlers.its not just a matter of including Indigenous perspectives-although such perspectives might be beneficial to the settler population- within the existing framework.At the end of the day indigenous Peoples must take responsibility for the education of their own children with the establishment of an Indigenous school system .That said the government should help with funding.
    But will it after all an Indigenous perspective would challenge and question just about everything taught today within the settler educational system and indeed the very notion of Canada, its history etc etc.Somehow I don’t see white/settler gov going for that

  6. Hi Sarah,

    Thank you for this peice, I like the way you write, and I agree, changing the way people are tought in school, not just the content of what is being taught is huge!

    I work on a radio show on CKUT community radio in Montreal (ckut.ca), called Native Solidarity News, and would love to hear your perspective in an interview. Let me know if you’d like to have a discussion about education, your perspectives on what a decolonized education would look like, and what needs to change in order for this to come about.

    Thanks a lot, hope to hear from you soon,



  7. I love this article. I’ve just come through two conferences focusing on indigenizing education, and your words reminded me that we have to focus on the skills that kids need in order to succeed in their own communities, and in order to keep their own cultural values in tact. Hunting, fishing, storytelling, art forms, ceremony, for example, are not even on the radar of most educators in the mainstream system. What’s valued is not an indigenous model of success, so the pathway isn’t paved to lead indigenous students to it. Another insightful article. Thank you Ms. Hunt.

  8. Great article Susan. It is a fact that as governments spend more and more money on education, the quality and the results get worse and worse. Humans learn a tremendous amount of skills and information completely on their own and without the help of any system or even a teacher per se. Placing students all together and expecting them to learn all the same information at the same time in the same manner is the most egregious part of modern education and it just so happens it effects minorities everywhere in a more significant way. Individualizing education makes the most sense out of all the possibilities and allows for the inclusion of opportunity and encouragement of anyone’s interests or calling.

  9. Hi, I’m Second Nation and I support First Nation Education On First Nations Terms.

    I’ve been researching and thinking about this topic for a while, and I personally think that this is the “Occupy” topic(s) that everyone has been looking for.

    Maybe we could start a “DeOccupy”?

    It is really up to First Nations but I would participate/support, as well as encourage other Second Nations.

    I was happy to read your article after reading the article the quote below is from the latest Assembly of First Nations News Release today.

    “Greater support for First Nations language immersion, both in formal school settings and in community-based settings, would be an appropriate way to build a new way forward following the apology for residential schools in 2008.”
    (See link for full letter) http://www.afn.ca/index.php/en/news-media/latest-news/afn-indigenous-languages-update

    “Bilingual education involves teaching academic content in two languages, in a native and secondary language with varying amounts of each language used in accordance with the program model. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bilingual_education

    First Nation = Native Language

    Second Nation = Secondary Language

    First Nation Develop Their Own Local Schools Program Model(s).

    I personally would have loved to learned Mi’Kmaq when I was going to school.

    There is different levels of Immersion that could be implemented, based on the situation. Other issues like problems learning because of Post Traumatic Stress probably play a huge role in the huge amount of children not finishing schools.

    And accommodations would need to be present to address the neurological issues stress interfered with in early development for those who didn’t have enough support but over time if we do the right things now, like the support the author (Sarah Hunt) mentions contributed to her own success in school. Supporting self regulation as well as Personal Identity,
    Second nations learning more about First Nations would help us all understand each other a little better.
    I don’t think as second nations, I could interfere with first nations developing their own local school programs? While still supporting the movement. Although I am willing to do what is asked of me by First Nations. (I have my own learning issues that make school a nightmare and don’t claim to be educated but I am willing to learn), Anybody else interested in supporting First Nations demand these changes?
    Its the least we could do.

  10. Great article Sarah – I love reading your words now as then, and I am happy to see you perservering on your academic path. Lots of fond thoughts!

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